To cook or not to cook

To cook or not to cook?

My clients often ask me whether it’s better to eat their food – particularly vegetables – cooked or raw. It’s not one or the other, it’s both, really. Raw vegetables, especially if eaten or frozen very soon after harvest, contain more vitamins than cooked. Scientists think that the discovery of cooking might even be what gave humans the edge over other primates: It allowed us to consume a lot more food – and thus calories – which then enabled us to grow a bigger (and very hungry) brain. Moreover, cooking of course reduces the risk of infection as it kills most microbes.


Yes, vitamins tend to degrade through cooking (and storage), minerals are indestructible, but they, too, may be lost if you throw out the water you cooked your veg in. However, all the vitamins in your vegetables will do you no good if you cannot absorb them. You are, after all, not so much what you eat, but what you absorb. Some foods even contain ‘anti-nutrients’, compounds that can be harmful if overconsumed, and cooking or soaking can render those harmless or reduce the amounts present in the food.

Carrots, for example, are not easy to digest. They are a good source of beta-carotene, a phytonutrient (plant nutrient) that is converted into vitamin A in the body. But you must first be able to absorb it, and that is easier when the carrots are steamed or roasted. Add a little olive oil, because beta-carotene is fat soluble and needs fat for proper absorption.

Tomatoes contain a phytonutrient called lycopene. It is responsible for the tomato’s red colour. Lycopene is thought to protect the arteries from oxidative damage and is anti-inflammatory, and cooking significantly increases the absorbability of lycopene, so don’t eat all of your tomatoes raw, make sure to have some cooked, whether that’s as tomato sauce, soup or in a casserole or on a homemade pizza.

Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale etc.) contain nutrients called sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, which are said to have cancer protective properties. These are made available when you simply chop the veg … but are destroyed by heat. So, to make the best use of those nutrients, you would want to eat your cruciferous veg raw. The downside of that is that they also contain goitrogenic compounds, which can affect the thyroid. Cooking renders those harmless. So, it’s a bit of a toss-up, depending on what you need and how healthy you are. If you have thyroid issues, it is best to limit raw brassica, but if you are healthy, you’d have to eat an awful lot for the goitrogens to affect your thyroid. The best of both worlds may be to lightly steam and soften the veg, which will still preserve some of the sulforaphane and I3C.

Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, watercress, rocket, and kale, are a great source of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C, B vitamins (incl. folic acid), vitamin K, magnesium and calcium and of course fibre. Vitamin C is very sensitive and quickly diminishes once a vegetable is harvested. Heat reduces vitamin C even more and folic acid is lost as well when the leaves are cooked, so salads and raw green smoothies sound like a good idea. But green leaves are also a source of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid interferes with the absorption of minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and iron – the very nutrients that are so abundant in green veg. Oxalic acid also contributes to the formation of kidney stones, so if you have had problems with those in the past, you’ll want to be more careful. Cooking the leaves destroys the oxalic acid, while – remember – leaving the minerals intact and then ready to absorb. Now, don’t let me scare you: A couple of handfuls of green leaves per day are not going to kill you. Rotate your leaves (i.e. don’t eat the same every day) as different plants contain different types of oxalates. Make sure to cook some of your leaves, too, for the improved absorption of minerals.

Mushrooms, too, are not easy to digest. Their cell walls don’t break down easily, so it’s really quite difficult for us to get to the nutrients they contain. Again, cooking helps us out, breaking down the cell walls for us. And a rather peculiar thing happens with mushrooms: While normally vitamin C decreases with cooking, in mushrooms it increases – at least in shiitake mushrooms.

Whole grains, beans, lentils and nuts contain a substance called phytic acid. If it binds to minerals in the gut, it takes prevents them from being absorbed and they will be excreted in the waste. This could, for example, affect your iron levels. Cooking, soaking, sprouting and fermenting reduces the amount of phytic acid in foods.

Does cooking decrease fibre? No! Like minerals, fibre is virtually indestructible until it reaches the large intestine, where our good bacteria get to work on it. Processing (chopping, blending, cooking) and chewing breaks fibre down mechanically, making it easier to digest, but it is not going to disappear and will still work its magic in the digestive tract.

How to cook?

Steaming is one of the gentler ways of cooking. Either use a steamer, where your food doesn’t touch the water at all, or cook it in very little water with the lid on. Most veg soften in just a few minutes.

Slow-cooking is a great way to gently cook your veg. The temperature is kept low (that’s why it takes hours) to preserve as many nutrients as possible. As slow-cooked meals are usually soups, sauces, or stews, you won’t be throwing out the water and therefore get to eat the minerals.


Fresh into 2016

With Christmas and the Christmas Party Season behind us, most of us have by now had their fill with rich food and alcohol. But one great party night – New Year’s Eve – is still ahead of us. Yes, most of us will have a few drinks – again -, but armed with a few tips, you may be able to welcome 2016 as fresh as a daisy anyway. Tired woman sleeping on the coach at office Probably the most common symptoms of a hangover are headache and thirst, closely followed by tiredness, listlessness and sensitivity to light and/or noise. Many feel nauseous and dizzy, some experience diarrhoea. Other possible symptoms are anxiety, depression, moodiness and irritability, not to speak of the very common ‘blackout’ – alcohol induced temporary amnesia. Altogether not a pretty picture. Nobody wants to feel like this, and yet we keep inflicting this avoidable condition on ourselves time and time again.

Needless to say: The only true cure is not to drink alcohol in the first place. You could volunteer to be the designated driver – although it can sometimes be taxing to be the only sober person in a group of revellers who are getting more and more inebriated …

If you are going to drink – and let’s face it, most of us do like a few drinks on New Year’s Eve – try the below.

On New Year’s Eve

Eat before you drink. Alcohol is absorbed straight through the lining of the stomach. If your stomach is empty, that process is very fast. So, have a proper dinner first, ideally one containing fat and protein.

Drink water throughout the evening. Alcohol makes us go to the toilet more often and we can end up dehydrated. Did you know that hangover headaches are caused by your shrinking – dehydrated – brain tugging at its tendons? Apart from helping us to stay hydrated, alternating alcoholic drinks with water means that we will drink less alcohol.

You may come across advice to take a painkiller, such as aspirin or paracetamol before bed in order to avoid a hangover the next morning. However, aspirin can irritate the intestinal lining and therefore make gastro-intestinal symptoms more likely and/or worse. Paracetamol puts extra strain on the liver, which will be busy enough trying to process the alcohol. So, my advice is to stay away from such drugs. It might be a good idea, however, to support your liver with milk thistle (e. g. by A Vogel) on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

When you go to bed, take make sure that there is water by your bedside.

The morning after

You will have heard of ‘the hair of the dog’ as a hangover cure. You won’t need me to tell you that drinking more alcohol is not the way to relieve a hangover. You’ll only suffer for longer.

While many crave caffeine to wake them up after a night of drinking, this is just another toxin you are asking your liver to handle. Take a break from caffeine today and stick to water or herbal teas.

All those trips to the toilet the night before didn’t just mean a loss of water, but also of ‘electrolytes’. Electrolytes are minerals that control nerve and muscle function, blood pH, hydration, and the repair of tissue after injury. Both dehydration and over-hydration lead to imbalanced electrolytes and some of the symptoms of hangovers are attributed to them.

Top up your magnesium by tucking into green leafy vegetables. A green smoothie would be a perfect drink. Just this once, add a pinch of good quality sea salt to replenish sodium levels as well.

Other nutrients you lose with water are water-soluble vitamins: vitamin C and those of the B-complex. B vitamins are involved in energy production, and low levels can leave us feeling dizzy and tired. Foods rich in B vitamins are eggs (also a good source of magnesium), avocados, mushrooms, brown rice, wholegrain bread, cauliflower, fish, seafood and nuts

great breakfast would be a slice of wholegrain rye bread topped with eggs Florentine (eggs on a bed of wilted spinach) or a spinach and mushroom omelette. If you are really hungry – and hunger can be another symptom of hangover – you may find room for some avocado there as well.

After breakfast, go back to bed if you can and rest. Sleep and rest is the best cure for a hangover.

Maybe on New Year’s Day you’ll resolve to give your body a break and take it easy for a few weeks in January. Chances are, you won’t really like alcohol much after the party season anyway. If you would like some extra support, why not join me for my Gentle Online Detox ProgrammeGentle Online Detox Programme beginning on 17 January (Day 0 – with meal plan and shopping list)? You will be receiving one email per day with valuable nutrition and detox information for just £1.50 per day. That’s less than even the simplest coffee from a fancy coffee shop!

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Almonds are your friend

picture credit: Victor Hanacek (viktorhanacek.com) Nuts have had a hard time: being high in fat and therefore calories, they were shunned by many. However, they’ve been enjoying a comeback since fat has been exonerated and we now know that “a calorie is not a calorie”. Recent research has shown that – contrary to popular belief – almonds actually help you slim down rather than make you fat, and protect the heart at the same time. A possible reason for the slimming effect of almonds may be that they make you feel satisfied and you are less likely to reach for sugary snacks. Another possibility is that they stimulate the metabolism. Nuts (and seeds) offer excellent nutrition and are a very handy, portable snack.

Although almonds contain mainly oil, they also have a significant amount of protein. They are also a good source of soluble fibre, which aids digestion. Most of the oil in almonds is monounsaturated (omega-9), the key fat in the Mediterranean diet, which has been found to protect against heart disease and high blood pressure. Their combination of fat, protein and fibre also ensure a slow release of energy, which helps stabilising blood sugar levels. As they contain virtually no carbohydrates apart from fibre, they are an excellent food for diabetics, too.

They are great sources of magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc and iron. Magnesium relaxes the mind as well as muscles and, like calcium, it is vital for strong bones. Potassium is an important mineral to support the adrenal glands (think: stress and fatigue) and is thought to prevent hypertension and possibly stroke. Zinc is an antioxidant, an essential co-factor in energy production and, among many other things, good for the skin. Almonds also contain copper, another mineral that promotes healthy skin and brain function. Moreover, they contain vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin that protects from tissue damage, not least the lining of the arteries. The brown skin of almonds contains the phytochemical resveratrol, a chemical that enhances blood flow to the brain. Another phytochemical in almond skin – laetrile – is thought to protect from cancer, particularly cancer of the colon.

A word of caution: Don’t go crazy on them either. One reason is that that are still quite calorific, and if you do eat a ton of them, you may put on weight after all. Studies that found that almonds reduce abdominal adiposity used 1.5 oz per day (40 g). You probably wouldn’t want to eat much more anyway, but consider this if using almond butter.

Almonds contain a compound called phytic acid, which impairs the absorption of iron, zinc and to a lesser extent calcium, if only in that particular meal, not any later meals. One way of reducing phytic acid is by soaking – which is what you would do before making almond milk. If you have a dehydrator, consider soaking, then dehydrating the almonds.

Have you ever seen “activated” nuts in the health food shop and wondered what that means? These nuts have first been soaked, then dehydrated. However, they are even more expensive than ‘normal’ almonds. Apart from reducing the phytic acid content, soaking deactivates an enzyme inhibitor contained in the almond, thus activating the enzymes they contain and making almonds even more nutritious.

Almonds need a warmer climate than Northern Europe can provide, so they are generally imported. If you buy almonds from a less affluent country, make sure to buy Fairtrade. Despite the fact that they are imported, almonds – like other nuts – are still a green choice. The trees absorb and store carbon from the environment, which makes them an environmentally friendly crop. Moreover, they do not require a lot of pesticides, so if you can’t afford organic, regular almonds are fine, especially since they are relatively expensive anyway. But remember how good they are for you. Also, they are quite filling, so you are likely to use them sparingly anyway.

If you end up with a bag of nuts that tastes stale or very bitter, they are rancid. Don’t be too shy to take them back to the shop and ask for a refund or exchange, as they are too expensive to write off. At home, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Light, heat and air destroy the unsaturated fatty acids, ie make them go rancid.

What to do with almonds?

  • Coarsely chop toasted or untoasted almonds and sprinkle over salads or stir-fries or stir into yoghurt, muesli or porridge.
  • Have a handful of almonds as a quick power snack.
  • If you like to snack on fruit, combine with almonds to provide the protein you need to balance blood sugar levels.
  • Make an open sandwich with almond butter, topped with banana slices.
  • Snack on celery sticks or thin apple slices spread with almond butter.
  • Use almond butter instead of cream in cooking – it’s great to thicken sauces, very creamy and very yummy.
  • Make milk shakes using almond milk.
  • Use ground almonds to replace all or some of the flour in baking. As ground almonds are heavier than flour, make sure to increase your raising agent (baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, yeast).

A blog on how to make your own almond butter is coming up soon.

Make sure to get tomorrow's Nutrilicious News for another quick almond snack recipe and a divine gluten-free and easy to bake Almond and Orange Cake!

Good Chemistry - Why nutrition matters

When we put food in our mouths, most of us - if we worry about anything - worry about the calories in that food. Eating food is necessary to give us energy, and without it we’ll starve. It tastes nice, too, so it’s not a chore. We know that we’ll get enough protein as long as we eat meat and enough calcium as long as we consume dairy. Not much can go wrong after that, right? The tomato sauce on pizza or the lettuce on a burger, baked beans in the morning and a glass of orange juice … that’s three already of our five-a-day. Surely that’ll do?

Why would it be necessary to learn about nutrition? Grandma never knew and she managed just fine by … simply eating food. But that’s just it: Grandma just ate food, because that was all there was. She couldn’t have gone far wrong. Today, however, we are surrounded by “Frankenfoods” - products that are manufactured to look and feel like food, even taste good, but are entirely artificial and provide very few, if any, of the chemicals we need to thrive, but plenty of chemicals that are unwelcome, even toxic, and that our body then has to dispose of.

Nothing in your body works without chemicals: You cannot move a muscle, you cannot think a thought without chemicals. Your heart wouldn’t beat, your liver not detox, your stomach not digest without chemicals. You cannot experience love, fear, or joy without chemicals. You cannot make babies without chemicals.  The chemicals, which do all that, have got to come from somewhere, and whilst the skin and the lungs are a way in, too, most of said chemicals - or nutrients - come from your food.

Protein - a substance not just found in meat, by the way, but also in dairy, eggs, pulses, nuts and seeds (and in smaller amounts in fruit and veg as well) - builds muscles, tendons, bones and connective tissue. Fat is a crucial part of every single cell wall. Every. Single. Cell. Wall. Without fat, your skin goes dry and your joints go creaky. You’d struggle to concentrate and be brilliant and be happy, because the cells of the brain require even more fat than all the others and it needs lots of a particular kind: omega-3. And cholesterol. Omega-3 fats come (mainly) from fatty fish and nuts and seeds.

For our body to work we need hormones (made from fat) and enzymes (made from protein). Apart from fat and protein, we need thousands of different nutrients to make tissue and hormones and enzymes and to make things happen: minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients (plant nutrients). Calcium, by the way, is a mineral that doesn’t just come from dairy (there’s much more in sesame) and it’s not the only mineral either. Sometimes, too much of a good thing can be toxic, sometimes too much of one thing pushes another out of the way. Balance is what we’re looking for.

We need fibre, both of the soluble and the unsoluble kind. Fibre feeds 'good' bacteria in the gut, mops up toxins, surplus cholesterol and old hormones, bulks up the stool and helps it move along. Without fibre you may end up constipated, miserable and unhealthy. Where do you get fibre from? Wholegrains - that’s brown bread, brown pasta, brown rice and the like - and lots and lots and lots of vegetables.

So, this is the stuff we need. But do we supply it? We would not expect a petrol car to run on diesel. Why should your body run on junk? You don’t need a degree in nutritional science. You just need to eat food, the way Grandma did.

If you would like to switch to a healthier diet, but don't know where to start, why not book a Diet MOT with me and see me in clinic at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex?